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Part II: Answering A Question With A Question (or Anecdotes In A Science Blog)
By Anonymous | October 14th 2009 01:30 PM | 5 comments | 1822 reads | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
In a previous entry, I discussed Sharon Begley’s Newsweek article titled “Ignoring the Evidence; Why do psychologists reject science?”  It nettled a perennial sore spot for me, which is the culture of Psychology and the role Psychology plays in the family of sciences. An issue I often wrestle with is the widely held disbelief in the merit of a psychological science. Some of this animosity is of course well earned. The annals of Psychology are replete with crackpot ideas, the infant crawl and first steps of ascendancy to legitimate science, and a number of discredited ideas remain endemic in both popular culture and myriad dark corners of the discipline.  Recently perusing the Psychology section of a local Borders’ bookstore, I was able to find several titles like “The Promise of Energy Psychology,” “The 33 Strategies of War,” and “The Seat of the Soul.” This is the public’s impression of Psychology.

(Side note: The Seat of the Soul is just one in a long line of self-help books from Gary Zukav extolling personal transformation by alignment of one’s eternal soul with one’s material body. I found this description of the book online: “Using his scientist's eye and philosopher's heart, Zukav shows how infusing the activities of life with reverence, compassion, and trust makes them come alive with meaning and purpose.” Nearly all of the biographies I found online conspicuously note that he is a graduate of Harvard University. That’s fine, except few disclose that his degree was in International Relations. His scientist’s eye? Just to make sure it was not some case of misplacement (perhaps these books really belonged in the New Age section but mistakenly mingled with Psychology), I searched Borders’ Psychology titles online. Sure enough, Seat of the Soul, Heart of the Soul, Mind of the Soul, Thoughts from the Seat of the Soul, Soul Stories, and Soul to Soul are all available by searching the General Psychology section.)

I have also collected my own fat purse of anecdotes over the years. As an undergraduate Psychology student, I often became perturbed by both the silent condemnation of my physical science friends and the lackadaisical (dare I say lazy) attitude of some Psychology peers. Later, as a Research Assistant in a psychophysiology lab at a different university (considered the best Psychology program at any public university in the country), I once overheard a potential undergraduate research assistant express his interest in Psychology (as opposed to a pre-med track) because he was not that interested in all the “science stuff.” I then quietly collected the pieces of my exploded head.

There exists an enormous gap between the current sophistication of the best experimental psychology research and popular understanding of the field. Great advances in the study of cognition and behavior have been made, including the integration of disparate domains of
inquiry like biology, chemistry, and physics. I think the closer Psychology comes to a science of the brain, the better it will fare. Indeed, the future of psychological science is most likely assimilation into the interdisciplinary field of Neuroscience (though for a slightly opposing and more nuanced view than my clumsy ontological reductionism, see Barrett’s elegant and insightful paper, “The Future of Psychology: Connecting Mind to Brain,” in the July issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science).

The difficult truth is, sometimes Psychology is a science and sometimes it is not a science (depending on the methodology employed). Psychology is possibly the most difficult science to practice as it seeks to unravel the most complex systems and in the process, must sift through an enormous amount “noise.” However, an absolute rejection of Psychology as a science is essentially an implicit acceptance of the profound failure of science to address something as deceptively mundane as human behavior (real phenomena in the material world). It’s an astonishing admission. And yet, I have never met anyone (including the “hardest” of scientists) not ready with an opinion about the nature of the behavior they observe in themselves or others.

I compare my relationship with Psychology to the relationship between siblings. There are often aspects about our siblings that can drive us crazy and provoke harsh criticism, but when others unfairly bully our siblings we are immediately compelled to rush to their defense. I suppose I am especially sensitive to common perceptions of Psychology given that my interests also include some socially awkward, yet otherwise scientifically legitimate, areas of inquiry like emotion, mindfulness, and empathy. However, I am often embarrassed by some like-minded practitioners’ lack of objectivity and eagerness to drink the proverbial Kool-Aid. It seems to me what is really
needed is a bit of tough love. The entire Psychology community (research scientists and practitioners alike) has some house cleaning to do. So, I would like to answer the question, “Why do some psychologists reject science?” with another question. “How do we, as a community of researchers, best communicate advances in psychological research to the public and more effectively criticize insidious, pseudoscientific entrepreneurs?”


Gerhard Adam
I think one of the fundamental difficulties of Psychology is the problem that all the scientific observers are subject to their own psychological influences as well.  It's hard to argue that psychology can be objective when it is effectively observing itself.  This becomes especially problematic when psychology may well produce the very results it's attempting to confirm (i.e. the self-fulfilling prophecy). 

Another legitimate question is whether there can be a realistic study of psychological phenomenon when the individual studying it may well have excessive baggage themselves, especially in the realm of therapy.  How does someone study or work with abuse victims, if they themselves may have been abused?  How does one study or treat depression when the psychologist is depressed? 

More importantly, if we consider ourselves psychologically healthy, how can someone objectively assess how that occurs without injecting their own opinions (rather than objective studies) as a basis for this.  After all, no matter how objective a study is, it can never truly know what we feel or think in our own minds. 
Mundus vult decipi
Hi Gerhard,

Thanks for your comments. I would agree one of the fundamental
difficulties facing Psychology is the reification of observer-dependent categories
(though physical science is also not completely immune to incorrect or clumsy categorization).
I prefer to stay as close to “brute facts” as possible (some might say treading
dangerously close to material reductionism… like it’s a bad thing), but I also
recognize the function and importance of larger human psychological constructs.
I didn’t want to address, in this entry, the more pressing philosophical and
methodological criticisms often made against Psychology (e.g. issues of a
unifying theoretical framework, falsifiability, or misuse of
hypothesis-testing), though perhaps I will take a stab at it in the future. Instead,
I was just hoping to describe the particular cultural landscape surrounding the
science of Psychology.

Also, I’m at a loss to answer your question regarding psychotherapy
as my interests primarily center on basic experimental investigation (perhaps
an answer lies in strict adherence to evidence-based treatments). Although, anecdotally,
I have heard it said that having experienced trauma themselves, such therapists
can be especially empathic and effective at building the strong interpersonal
bonds needed for a good therapeutic relationship.

Thanks for your thoughts.
Gerhard Adam
Although, anecdotally, I have heard it said that having experienced trauma themselves, such therapists can be especially empathic and effective at building the strong interpersonal
bonds needed for a good therapeutic relationship.
I realize that I was moving outside the bounds with psychotherapy, but you raise an interesting point with your response.  While "empathy" and "interpersonal bonds" are certainly important elements for individuals, it does make one wonder just how scientific such a position really is.
Mundus vult decipi
agreed :)
Nice series of articles. I like your conclusion that serious house cleaning is needed to reconcile the 2 perspectives.

I was particularly drawn to a quote from the 1st article:
It is widely acknowledged by serious thinkers within the community that
while there are many excellent research-oriented clinical psychology
programs, the field is brimming with science-anemic non-PhD programs
and even “university-based PhD programs vary markedly in the quality of
science training offered to their students.”
Certainly a hard-nosed empirical psychologist can look at this situation and say that psychology *should* be more based in science. But this ignores the fact that it looks like psychology is slowly drifting away from science.

If this drift away from science is correct, then there is a lot to learn from it.

It likely reflects the practice of psychology - ie, what works, what doesn't, what patients demand, what they can be supplied - along with the science of psychology. Afterall, one would think that if psychology research can supply practice with the answers, then it would have already, or at least the 2 would be slowly converging. The fact that they're not seems to indicate that, at least so far, research hasn't helped much, at least in the professional practice of psychology.

I guess the point is that it's less valuable for curmudgeon research psychology professors (I've met some) to say that psychology *should* be more based in science. And it's more valuable to objectively look at the situation and learn from it. Ironically, the latter approach is more in line with the scientific method, and it seems to suggest that much research *has not* made itself relevant to practice.